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'Graveyard' Guides

By Associated Press

ASTORIA -- As the pilot boat Chinook pulls alongside the Japanese freighter Spring Leo, matching its cruising speed, both vessels rise and fall on the seas and swells of the Columbia River bar. A ladder drops over the freighter's side.

Bar pilot Ellwood Collamore backs down the ladder, his feet on the rungs and hands on the ropes. Near the bottom, he waits for the Chinook to reach the height of a swell and swings onto the deck.

Collamore has just brought another ship through the "Pacific Graveyard" -- an often tumultous zone over a sandbar where the Columbia River pours into the Pacific.

"Piece of cake," he says. And on this calm day, it was. When the swells run to 30 or 40 feet, he says, it's another matter.

The entry to the Columbia has been the dread of sailors for centuries.

In 1866 a Navy commander found it "one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor. Mere description can give but little idea of the terror of the bar of the Columbia."

The bar has been tamed somewhat over time with channeling and jetties.

The job of Columbia River bar pilots -- 18 seasoned seamen -- is to guide big ships through this zone of danger.

Most pilots are graduates of maritime academies and all must have had at least two years as a master of an oceangoing ship. The Columbia pilots are the only ones in the United States with that requirement. To become a master usually means at least 10 to 15 years at sea. They also need a Coast Guard endorsement for the Columbia bar and a pilot's license from the state of Oregon.

Bar pilots tell the helmsman how to steer in order to coax the ships through the 600-foot-wide channel into the Columbia. Winter work on the bar in winds of 60 knots and swells of 20 feet is considered fairly routine.

"When it starts to get up to 70 or 80 knots we start to draw lines" about whether to let shipping cross the bar, said bar pilot Robert Johnson, who has been doing it for 15 years and has handled that and more.

Most of the time, he said, nothing goes wrong. When something does, it's critical.

Some swells at the 13-mile buoy have been measured at 44 to 45 feet, and they can be even bigger on the bar itself, he said.

Over a long-term average, bar pilots bring about 4,100 ships a year over the bar. That's down a little these days because of economic conditions.

By Oregon law, all foreign ships and American vessels without a qualified bar pilot on board must use pilots.

"The pilots know every inch of the bar. Without them we would have no international commerce," Ostermiller said.

Ships pay the pilots about $2,500, Johnson said, but the price varies depending on ship size.

Pilots work in strict rotation, and the No. 1 pilot, the one next on duty, can decide to close the bar to shipping.

"He will listen to weather reports and talk to the pilots, and if he decides to close the bar, it's closed. Commerce stops," Johnson said.

Since the pilots are former masters, they understand the commercial implications of lost time, and balance it against safety considerations.

"In the days of sail if the wind wasn't right you would wait until it was. It could take days, weeks, even months. That's the way it was."

Today, he said, "if a master wants to do a certain thing because of commercial pressure, I can step in and stop it," Johnson said.

"Buoy No. 7 flashes green about every second," Johnson said. "If from the pilot boat you can see seven in seven seconds, there's no cause to worry. If you see only one or two you know you're going to get a good ride" because of the waves.

Sometimes, he said, the most important thing the pilots can do is to say "no" and tell the captain to anchor or head back out to sea until conditions improve.

The pilots' experience provides a knowledge of channels, winds, tides and swells and river currents essential to getting ships safely into, or out of, the Columbia River, which leads to major upriver seaports. Technology has advanced rapidly over the years, and the pilots have not lost a major ship on the bar in decades. Fishing boats, which do not require pilots, still go down.

The Chinook, a new $3 million pilot boat, is built to roll over completely and right itself if it has to. The only time it has was during testing before the pilots took delivery.

But in the end, he said, bar piloting is often visceral .

"You get a gut feeling that this is a good risk or that this is not a good risk at all," Johnson said. "A lot of times in the winter we're right on the edge. We just have to depend on experience."

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.